FROM KEITH B. JONES | August 27, 2019

There’s absolutely no denying it: these are exciting times to be in business.

Surprising to many people (who don’t read this blog, anyway), this is especially true in our renaissance parking and mobility industry.

While new technology, subsequent regulations, and the prominence of quality data are all directing and redirecting the industry’s course, there’s a potential disrupter that hasn’t been addressed or examined as much as is needed: Mergers & Acquisitions.

The consolidation of the parking industry might, in fact, be one of the most influential determinants of where our industry goes and grows. Beyond that, mapping M&As may paint a picture of what our smart cities will physically look like, both tomorrow and in Tomorrowland.

A lot of transactions have taken place in the parking world recently, the sum of which have sparked a commoditization of the industry at large. Many of the purchases and partnerships have certainly brought financial windfalls for the parties involved, but what about for our cities? Should municipalities be concerned about the companies they hire acting in the best interest of their stockholders instead of their citizens?

DEAL OR DETOUR?

The change in year—from 2018 to 2019—brought with it a lot of change in parking and mobility. For instance, we noticed more cities and developments cracking down on dockless scooters, some even implementing extremely restrictive policies.

But we also witnessed a major unicorn deal that’s since flooded the industry with undercurrents of both excitement and suspicion.

When Softbank, a Japan-based emerging technology fund, invested in Miami-based ParkJockey, it elevated the ambitious startup’s value to a remarkable $1 billion, subsequently kicking open the funding doors for two more large transactions on ParkJockey’s behalf.

Sure, the offer made it easy for ParkJockey to accept, but it also puts serious pressure on them to perform. Afterall, SoftBank is in the business of business, not the business of transportation. Which is why many leaders in the space (myself included) are calling into question whether it will actually play out to benefit the most important party in the whole deal: consumers.

Personally, I feel the whole thing is ten years too early. Another decade would provide an operational cushion, of sorts, to manage the heavy pressure of the purchased companies to hit SoftBank’s goals and KPIs while progressing undeterred toward better—and beneficial—customer experiences.

AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT’S A QUESTION OF COMMERCIAL INTEREST VS. COMMUNITY INTERESTS

The SoftBank-Parking Jockey deal was by far the biggest, but by no means the only, deal of its kind to go down in recent months. Indeed, industry-wide, we’re seeing deal after deal after deal take place on almost all levels of scale.

While the subsequent acquisitions under ParkJockey are operator-based, with ROI expected from the popularization of new tech (all of which our industry desperately needs) a large number of acquisitions are for actual infrastructure.

“The common denominator across all of these internationally dominated buyer groups is the desire to invest in the U.S. and have exposure to our economy. They want to generate a consistent yield in a low-interest rate world where yield is hard to achieve,” explains Blue Toad Publishing in a self-directed Q/A article about the M&A spike.

Which begs the question: If you’re a city hiring a parking management company, do you really want them focused on cutting costs and doing what’s best for their (and their investor’s) bottom line? Or do you want them focusing on what’s best for you and your investors—i.e. the residents who expect you to make their city better?

Investors purchasing parking companies are still primarily concerned with the fiduciary responsibility to their stakeholders and less concerned with how their decisions impact the municipalities and communities that they, in fact, serve.

This means they could neglect significant factors in the evolution of mobility, purposefully taking the road towards profit that turns us away from the road toward Tomorrowland.

How, for instance, will investor-driven companies align their decisions around critical goals of our sector, such as environmental initiatives, local traffic optimization, curb transformation, and the streamlining of other mobility trends like ride-hailing and vehicle sharing services?

The worry is not mine alone.

Across the pond, there are significant concerns that “Changes in ownership can also negatively affect companies’ financial policies and their ability to maintain successful relationships with local municipalities and key stakeholders.” (Spratings)

Based on what’s out there in the industry as far as tech, mobility concepts, and transit developments, those organizations may be too distracted to operate in the best interests of our cities from the perspective of client experience.

If you’re a government official, do you really want to hire a parking company that’s focused on cutting costs and doing what’s best for their bottom line versus what you want and need to do for your municipality?

I don’t mean to outright oppose these deals, to dissuade governments or other organizations from working with investor-backed parking companies, or to criticize any organizations or owners who embark on such transactions. But I do hope to influence city officials to ask, “Who is my parking company really serving, me or their private equity firm?”

When contracting parking companies, you, as a city or development leader, need to challenge them to make sure their strategies, interests, plans, and even (perhaps especially) their corporate philosophies align with your objectives, goals, needs, and visions. Their focus should be to help you, not to hit numbers.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to not let private interests take the wheel when it comes to transportation development—but it’s imperative if we want to avoid any wrong turns as we cruise toward smart cities.

“Ace Mobility Solutions isn’t just a business. It’s the Mobility Revolution in action.”

Keith B. Jones
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